Mark Collins – Expanding Torrent of World War I History, Part 2

Further to this post, noted British military historian Gary Sheffield (his “revisionist” Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities is excellent) has a very wide-ranging indeed review article in the Wall St. Journalexcerpts on some likely lesser-known new books:

The World War I Blame Game [Prof. Sheffield is firmly in the on the Germans and Austrians camp]

In “A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire” (Basic, 440 pages, $29.99), Geoffrey Wawro [have almost finished, he has also written good books on the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars] accepts German “war guilt” but makes a powerful case for sharing it with Vienna. Mr. Wawro, an American military historian, offers a picture of an Austro-Hungarian leadership that was reckless in the extreme. A fatalistic sense of “now or never” gripped men such as Emperor Franz Josef —depicted here not as a charming anachronism but as “an altogether malevolent force”—the foreign minister, Count Berchtold, and the army chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf…

…both Gordon Martel, in “The Month That Changed the World: July 1914” (Oxford, 484 pages, $34.95), and T.G. Otte, in “July Crisis: The World’s Descent Into War” (Cambridge, 534 pages, $29.99), argue persuasively and at length that what individuals did during the July Crisis really mattered. These books are minute dissections of the events and the decisions that were made between the Sarajevo assassination and the outbreak of a general war on Aug. 4. Mr. Martel, a Canadian professor of history, argues that too much investigation of the origins of the war has taken place under “a dark cloud of predetermination, of profound forces having produced a situation in which war was inevitable.”

Germany looms large in these discussions…

Messrs. Martel and Otte are covering well-trod ground, yet they have produced distinguished and readable books that offer much detail of the failings and miscalculations of politicians, soldiers and diplomats across Europe…[Mr Martel] has some acute insights. He notes that in 1938, during the Sudetenland Crisis, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was determined to learn from the failure in July 1914 and hold a great-power conference. This resulted in his meeting with Adolf Hitler at Munich. “Men do learn from their mistakes,” Mr. Martel dryly observes; “they learn how to make new ones.”..

Mr. Otte is particularly strong on a forensic revisiting of the sources, which he notes have tended to be played down in “the focus on impersonal forces.” A historian of international relations at the University of East Anglia, he is balanced in his criticism of the Germans. While he argues that “No-one at Berlin willed war,” his picture of the behavior of the kaiser and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, is highly unfavorable—showing them concerned time and time again that Austria-Hungary not back down even as they struggled to localize the quarrel in the Balkans. Mr. Otte denies that the German leadership had “criminal intent” but in the same paragraph notes a “recklessness that borders on the criminal. Theirs comes very close to it.”..[But Russia too was not without blame, read on.]

Moreover the Serbs, with their malevolent intent towards Austria-Hungary and their largely state-sponsored assassination, get far too little share of responsibility.  It will be interesting to see what judgements historians make after another century and whatever events have taken place in the meantime.


As the Centenary of the Start of WW I Approaches…

The Start of the Great War, or, Sh.. Happens

Plus previous posts on an earlier book by Prof. Otte:

Austerity and Canada’s Dept. of Foreign Affairs: Nothing Unique

Plus ça change, or, as the Foreign Affairs World Turns

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

5 thoughts on “Mark Collins – Expanding Torrent of World War I History, Part 2”

  1. Well it might, mightn’t it?

    “World War I Conference in Sarajevo Divides Scholars

    The conference, moreover, took place against the background of many new commemorative publications, including the Australian historian Prof. Christopher M. Clark’s account of World War I’s origins, titled “The Sleepwalkers.” An astounding global success, Professor Clark’s book has prompted a substantial revision among historians of the war’s causes. Whereas in the past German nationalism and bellicosity were singled out as disproportionately culpable, Mr. Clark lays equal blame on the other great powers, France, Russia, and Britain.

    Furthermore, he argues that Princip was directly or indirectly an arm of Serbia’s intelligence services, not a Bosnian teenager acting on his own. Mr. Clarke also links Serbia’s expansionist campaign at the beginning of the 20th century, and its brutality, to the ethnic cleansing and war crimes of the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia…”

    Mark Collins


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